Abbildungen der Seite
PDF

which is now not the less agreeable from being the evolution of his unlearned and unaided imagination.

Mr. Charles Cowden Clarke, the son of his preceptor, remained the friend of Keats, when removed from school in 1810, and apprenticed for five years to a surgeon of some eminence at Edmonton. This intelligent companion supplied him with books, which he eagerly perused, but so little expectation was formed of the direction in which bis talents lay, that when in 1812, he asked for the loan of Spenser's Fairy Queen, Mr. Clarke remembers that the family were amused at the ambitious desires of their former pupil. He must indeed have known something of Shakspeare, for he had told a young school-fellow that “he thought no one would dare to read Macbeth alone at two o'clock in the morning;" but it was Spenser that struck the secret spring and opened the floodgates of his fancy. “He ramped through the scenes of the romance," writes Mr. Clarke, “like a young horse turned into a spring meadow :" he could talk of nothing else : his countenance would light up at each rich expression, and his strong frame would tremble with emotion as he read. The lines “in imitation of Spenser" are the earliest known verses of his composition, and to the very last the traces of this main impulse of his poetic life are visible. But few memorials remain of his other studies : there is a “Sonnet to Byron” of little merit, dated 1814 ; one of much grace and juvenile conceiton Chaucer's Tale of the “Flower and the Leaf," written on the blank leaf, while his friend was asleep over the book ; and one of most clear thought and noble diction,

“On first looking into Chapman's Homer,” It was to Mr. Clarke again that he owed his introduction to this fine interpretation, which preserves so much of the heroic simplicity and the metre of which, after all various attempts, including that of the hexameter, still appears the best adapted from its length and its powers, to represent in English the Greek epic verse. Unable to read the original, Keats had long stood by Homer as a great dumb name, and now he read it all night long, with intense delight, even shouting aloud, when some especial passage struck his imagination.

The “Epistles” to his friends and his brother George, then a clerk in London, indicate a rapid development of the poetic faculty, especially free from the formalism and imitation which encumber the early writings even of distinguished poets, and full of an easy gaiety, which at times runs into couversational common-place, or helps itself out of difficulties by quaintnesses that look like affectations. But, even in these first efforts, the peculiarity of making the rhymes to rest on the most picturesque and varied words, instead of the conventional resonance of unimportant syllables, is distinctive, and an effect is produced which from its very novelty often mars the force and beauty of the expression, and lowers the sense of poetic harmony into an ingenious concurrence of sounds. It is also a palpable consequence of this mode of composition, that the sense appears too often made for the rhyme, and, while most poets would be loth to allow how frequently the necessity of the rhyme suggests the

MEMOIR

Keats a'ways de aust the notion that as other school..

, that I mizht!

and be nerer ceased har is one originality a nier, that if the ected to the discip basical education, a ne sont pa, presen

thought and fort rach of the manne

corresponding thought, here the uncommon prominence of the rhyme keeps this effect constantly before the reader. Yet, when approached with sympathetic feeling and good will, this impression soon vanishes before the astonishing affluence of thought and imagination, which at once explains and excuses the defect, if it be one. Picture after picture seems to rise before the poet's eye in a succession so rapid as to embarrass judgment and limit choice, and fancies and expressions that elsewhere would be strange and far-fetched are here felt to have been the first suggested.

When Keats's apprenticeship was over, and he removed to London to " walk the hospitals,” he soon became acquainted with men capable of appreciating and cultivating his genius. Among the foremost Leigh Hunt welcomed him with a sympathy that ripened into friendship, and the sonnet “on the day Leigh Hunt left prison,” attests the earnestness of reciprocal affection. They read and walked much together, and wrote in competition on subjects proposed. Much has been said of the influence of this connection on the writings of Keats, and much of their mannerism has been traced to this source. The justice of this supposition is more than doubtful, and the stupid malevolence of the criticisms which mainly sustained it is now too well exposed to require re. futation. It is indeed probable that the fresh mind of Keats was directed by Hunt into many of the channels which had delighted his own, and that peculiarities that had taken the fancy of the one were easily pressed on the imagination of the other.

Cortz; but it may mized plant would shoots and expand aliage. The most of Leigh Hunt an became obnoxious bezet every literar encourage than t and to demand a matters that cou personal interes impossible to de faculty of the facility, and a sforded which conceal. Cha desolate lodgi: zines, or Bur taverns and t mournful co

But Keats always defended himself energetically against the notion that he belonged to Leigh Hunt's or any other school. “I refused,” he wrote, “to visit Shelley, that I might have my own unfettered scope," and he never ceased to desire to bear all the defects of his own originality. It is no contradiction to this to infer, that if the talents of Keats had been subjected to the discipline of a complete and regular classical education, and a self-distrust inculcated by the continual presence of the highest original models of thought and form, he would have escaped very much of the mannerism which accompanied his early efforts; but it may be doubted whether the well. trained plant would have thrown out such luxurious shoots and expanded into such rare and delightful foliage. The most that can be said of the influence of Leigh Hunt and his friends on Keats was that he became obnoxious to those evils which inevitably beset every literary coterie, that he learned rather to encourage than to restrain individual peculiarities, and to demand a public and permanent attention for matters that could only justly claim a private and personal interest. But, on the other hand, it is impossible to deny that in this genial atmosphere the faculty of the young poet ripened with incredible facility, and advantages of literary culture were afforded which no just critic can disparage or conceal. Chatterton eating out his heart in his desolate lodging and ignoble service to low magazines, or Burns drinking down thought in country taverns and town society little more refined, afford mournful contrasts to the pleasant and elevating associations enjoyed by Keats during his residence in London, which he would have been the last to undervalue. Hazlitt, Haydon, Godwin, Basil Montague, and his remarkable family, and many other persons of literary and artistic reputation, received him with kindness: Mr. Reynolds, whose poems, written under feigned names, are full of inerit; Mr. Dilke, whose intelligent criticism, large information, and manly sense, have had so beneficial an effect on the modern history of English letters; Archdeacon Bailey; and Severn, the poetical painter, became his devoted friends : while in Mr. Ollier, himself a poet, and afterwards in Messrs. Taylor and Hessey, he found considerate and liberal publishers.

It soon became apparent that the profession for which young Keats was destined was too unsuitable to be maintained. There remain careful annotations on the lectures he attended, but when he had once entered on the practical part of his business, although successful in all his operations, he found his mind so oppressed with an over-wrought apprehension of doing harm, that he determined on abandoning the course of life to which he had devoted a considerable portion of his small fortune. “My dexterity,” he said, “used to seem to me a miracle, and I resolved never to take up a surgical instrument again.” The little volume of poems, the beloved first-born, scarcely touched the public attention : it was not even observed as a sign of the existence of a new Cockney poet, whom the critic was bound to silence or to convert, or as the production of a new member of the revolutionary propaganda, to be hunted down with ridicule or

« ZurückWeiter »